A Wandering thread- Exploring hyperfiction


I must open the little trap-door and let out the linked phrases in which I run together no matter what happens, so that instead of incoherence there is perceived a wandering thread, lightly joining one thing to another.
(Virginia Woolf, The Waves, p. 33)
Hyperfiction is a narrative form that makes use of the characteristics of the Internet to tell a story. This means, for example, that the story is divided to segments that are connected to each other by hyperlinks. Readers have a choice between multiple links, and thereby between multiple fragments. This opportunity gives them influence on the sequence in which they read the story. Suddenly, reading a story is nothing like a quiet sit by the fireplace anymore. Decisions have to be made, actions have to be taken.

This article is an abstract of the thesis I wrote on the subject (in Dutch). I will focus here on the comparison between hyperfiction and narratives in print. First, I will discuss how the characteristics of hypertext and the writing technique of the Internet are used in hyperfiction. In the second part of my article I will explore the narrative aspects of those characteristics.

Hyperfiction as hypertext

The virtual text

Novels are books and books are objects, and therefore they exist like other objects- they are a space in space.
(William Gass in Couturier, 1991:52)
Gass shows how easy the question " where is the text located? " can be answered when you are dealing with the written medium. The same question is suddenly very hard to answer when the text is in a digital form:
The most unusual feature is that these new electronic hard structures are not directly accessible either to the writer or to the reader. The bits of the text are simply not on a human scale. [...] The text is filtered through layers of hardware and software as it passes from writer to reader, even if the writer is reading his or her own text.
(Bolter 1991:42)
All digital texts might be considered virtual. This has several consequences. First of all, it creates devices necessary to read a text (idem). To read a hyperfiction on the World Wide Web, a reader needs, amongst others, a computer, a connection to the internet, and a browser. This makes the context of a work very different from that of a printed work. The latter is an isolated object, whereas hypertexts are surrounded by and connected to a number of other texts. This makes it difficult to establish the boundaries of a virtual text (Landow, 1991: 60).

Another consequence of virtuality is the loss of what Couturier calls the 'fixed finality' of a text (Couturier, 1991: 47). Texts are not fixed anymore. They can be constantly manipulated and expanded by both author and reader. Some authors however choose to block or limit the reader's freedom to change the text. Thus, there are two kinds of hypertexts, coined by Michael Joyce as being 'exploratory' and 'constructive'. (Joyce in De Mul: 1997:7) Only the latter makes it possible for the reader to interfere with the content and/ or the structure of the work. Exploratory hypertext only bestows the freedom in the order that a text is read. Most hyperfictions are of this kind. I will return to this point in the section 'interactivity'.

In hypertext, texts are linked to each other, thereby forming a network of texts. This makes not only individual texts virtual, but also the entire network of texts. The texts are connected by hyperlinks. Those links however, indicate only possible connections. A connection is only really made if a reader performs an action, usually clicking on a hyperlink. This makes the contribution of the reader necessary for the construction of the network of texts, and thereby for the construction of a hyperfiction. By clicking links or refusing to do just that, a reader decides on the expansion of the text. When a reader stops clicking only possible connections remain.

A third consequence of this virtuality is that is becomes impossible to grasp the full extent of the work. Readers lose the certainty of having all the information the author intended them to have. This insecurity grows by the realisation that a hyperfiction can be altered between visits. Changes within and expansion of the text can alter the interpretation a reader made of the story.

Finally, virtuality makes a text unstable. This is caused by the devices that are necessary to read the text, what Bolter calls layers of soft- and hardware (see quote above). This makes the text sensitive to all kinds of errors: failing software, hardware or even electrical difficulties. These errors can change or damage the text, or make it inaccessible, making the hyperlink especially unstable. If an author is not careful enough, it can point to an unexpected target. But even if he or she is really careful, the target text can be changed or deleted by the time a reader uses the hyperlink. This adds to the already mentioned uncertainty for readers.

A constructive hyperfiction gives the reader the opportunity to repair some of this uncertainty. He or she can add the missing information or change incomprehensible connections.

Hyperlinks and network

The main objective of hyperlinks is to connect texts or fragments of texts. There are different kinds of hyperlinks. An external link connects a text with texts outside the domain of the current work. This outside domain can mean other texts by the author or texts by others. This however, is not a new feature in narrative texts; it is also possible to refer to other texts with print. Usually this is referred to with the term intertextuality. There is one major difference however. Hypertext offers a writer the opportunity to make the referred text directly available to the reader. By clicking, the text appears on the screen. The author can use this to incorporate the text into his own work. There are many ways to do this: for example by referring only to a paragraph or to the entire text. It is also possible to establish a clear connection between the two texts by using a practical link, or to make readers guess by using a metaphorical hyperlink.

Internal links are the most common in hyperfiction. They refer to pages inside the network that constitutes a hyperfiction. Their function is structural. Internal hyperlinks transform all the different parts of the network into a story. It is possible to connect this function of hyperlinks to narratology with the aid of the possible worlds theory:

In hypertext, the text is a network in which the nodes may be compared to worlds and the links to airlines: playing with the text is a perpetual travel from world to world.
(Ryan, 1998: 147)
This makes it possible to incorporate hyperlinks in the theory of possible worlds. Hyperlinks can be considered as the means of transportation between different worlds. Hypertext is a network of texts, thereby making it possible to offer a network of worlds, or to extend the metaphor: a universe of possible worlds. It is up to the reader to decide which 'world' in the 'universe' becomes, in Ryan's terms, the 'textual actual world' (Ryan, 1991:24). He or she does this by choosing between different hyperlinks. Hyperfiction gives writers the opportunity to avoid the choice between contradictory options; they can transfer this task to the reader. In print, this only occurs with Doležel's 'impossible worlds' (Doležel, 1998: 24). An impossible world is a world where contradictory facts on an ontological level are both true at the same time. This forces writers that use the print medium to choose between those facts. Hyperfiction is not limited in this way. Contradictory worlds can be presented without forming an impossible world. The reader is forced to choose because only one link can be clicked. Thereby not the world becomes impossible, but the universe as a whole.

The network of texts that construe a hypertext has also practical consequences. One of these consequences is the lack of a fixed start and end, at least theoretically. Here rises a problem for writers of fiction. Both beginning and end have a clear function in a narrative world. The beginning has an introductory function: it sets the main data of the fictional world like characters, setting, narrator etc. If information is accessible from different points, this function cannot be fulfilled by the beginning. This probably explains why hyperfictions usually start in medias res, or have multiple beginnings.

With the lack of a clear beginning, it will not be surprising that the end of a hyperfiction is not as stable as is usual in print. Hyperfiction often simple lacks an ending, or offers multiple endings. It is also possible that an ending, for whatever reason, cannot be found. Miller defines the functions of an ending as follows: " to justify the cessation of narrative and to complete the meaning of what has gone before". (Miller, 1981: xi). This explains the lack of a conventional ending in hyperfiction: the story can always be expanded. There is no need to justify an ending because the narrative simply doesn't have to stop. It is significant that the few hyperfiction writers who did feel the need to stop narrating, also provide closure. Richard Pryll's Lies is an example of this. In other cases, closure can be found within one or more story lines.

The second part of the definition "to complete the meaning of what has gone before" is not possible if the story has to be expandable. Various examples from literature in print however show that this is not an indispensable feature of stories. Even in the fixed medium of print there are novels with open endings and multiple endings. The last is mostly associated with postmodernism (McHale, 1987, p.109).


One of the most distinct features of hypertext is its ability to incorporate different means of representation in one code. This is usually referred to with the term multimedia. Although it is possible to use images and colours in print, literary authors have seldom used it. Bolter points out that the reason for this is probably because it is considered inappropriate by forms of serious writing such literature (Bolter 1991:54).

Fortunately, postmodernistic authors have already shown that using images and colours does not necessarily make a work less seriously. They also found a way to use images, not simply as illustrations, but as a distinct layer of meaning.

Digital media offer more options, such as the use of video and sound. Many authors use these options. The Unknown (Gillespie a.o.) and Fisher's These Waves of Girls are among the many that use sound. Animation and video are also used, like in Avatar's **** and Amerika's Grammatron. Recently many authors use flash animations, as can be seen in the short list for the 2001 Electronic Literature Awards (Electronic Literature Organisation, http://www.eliterature.org).

However, this mixing of media ultimately creates a problem of definition. What is the boundary between hyperfiction and other forms of digital art? This is very hard to tell, and there is something to be said for not making a distinction at all. Nonetheless, it may be possible to define hyperfiction by its dependence on language. Hyperfiction uses language as its primary source of meaning; other means of representation are used to support or expand the linguistic content. This idea can be clarified by Jackson's My body & A Wunderkammer where a drawing of a body forms the overall structure that gives access to the linguistic fragments. In the background one can hear the sound of breathing. There wouldn't be a story without the linguistic fragments, which makes the work a hyperfiction, but the drawing and sound bring the body more to life than would have been possible by using only language.


The last and probably the most striking feature of hypertext is interactivity; the possibility of giving readers (users) influence on the text. Interactivity depends on earlier mentioned features of hypertext: the virtual text, hyperlinks and network. Theoretically, readers can have exactly the same privileges as the author of the work. As one might expect, this almost never happens. Writers have a choice in the amount of influence they grant the reader. Joyce makes a useful distinction in this respect between exploratory and constructive hypertexts (Joyce in De Mul, 1997:7).

In a constructive hypertext, readers have full access to the text. They can alter or expand it. This is rare with hyperfiction. There are some cases where readers are invited to become co-writers. Ryman's 253 is one of these. A special case is No Dead Trees. This project has become collaborative work, where visitors contributed to with characters, story-lines etc. The Fray website uses a different kind of interactivity. Because of their linear structure, the stories on this website are not really hyperfictions, but at the end of each story there is an invitation to the reader to react with their own story on the subject. Many visitors use this opportunity and all kinds of seemingly personal stories can be found.

Most hyperfictions are exploratory hypertexts, meaning that they grant readers the freedom of navigation only. This means that readers can choose the order in which they read the story. This may sound limited in comparison to constructive hypertexts, but is not without consequences. The order in which the work is read can heavily influence the meaning of the story (or the interpretation thereof). In addition, it gives the writer the possibility to confront readers with their choices. The effects of this can be striking. In Pryll's Lies, the reader is forced on every page to choose between "truth" and "lies". One of the possible endings of the work begins with the question "you want the truth?" followed by what seems to be the true story. Somehow, this is very disappointing compared to the fictional version, which makes you wonder why you choose to hear the truth. In Inglis's Same Day Test, the reader has to choose whether or not the character takes an HIV test. This is not an easy choice and the same holds for its consequences.

Indirect confrontation is another possibility. This can be found in self-conscious texts like The Unknown (Gillespie a.o.). The introductory page (default.htm) has a lot of text and dozens of hyperlinks. Towards the end, two of the characters make the following remarks:

S: Do you realise how long people have had to scroll down by now?
D: They've probably hit a link by now, and gone deeply into our hypertext novel.
Readers can also be addressed directly. Unlike print, where only an implied reader or narratee can be addressed, hyperfiction has the opportunity to address the person sitting behind his or her computer screen. This is possible because the actual reader must act by clicking hyperlinks. This happens in most cases only outside the story ('click here to begin'), but it is possible to use within the story too. Sometimes readers become characters, as can be seen in hyperfictions that use the old game form of text-adventures, like in A Maze of Mirrors by Payne and Simmer:
When your lids open to receive again
The nasty world you're destined to explore.
So - open eyes to see how all this fits?
Or pause one moment to regain your wits?

Although 'you' is in this case an implied reader, the actual readers make the choice whether they like to open their eyes or pause for a moment. This is an exclusive choice and dictates the rest of the story.

The fiction of hyperfiction

There are many possible definitions for the term 'narrative'. I will choose a very broad definition: a narrative is a text that represents a fictional world. This fictional world can only be accessed though a so-called 'mediator'. This function is found within narratives of any medium, but is most easily spotted in linguistic narratives. In this case, it is a narrator that grants access to the fictional world. This world can be built upon many different elements like focalizers, characters, setting and events. Somehow, these elements have to be connected to each other. These connections are based upon principles of organisation and form an underlying structure to the narrative. I will refer to this structure with the term 'plot'.

Even a quick glance at hyperfiction will reveal that the main difference between narrative in hypertext and narrative in print lies in this area. This difference is connected to their corresponding media on a most structural level. As mentioned above, both hypertext and print have an inherit structure. This has a great influence on the structure of a narrative. When an author uses print to tell a story, he or she can assume two important (but again obvious) facts: the reader will follow the story from beginning to end in a forward manner, page after page in the strict order imposed by the book.

Hypertext has a different structure, as was demonstrated in the first part of this article. An important consequence of this can be illustrated by possible events in the fictional world of hyperfiction. If one defines an event as a change of situation , it will become clear that something strange can occur in a hyperfiction: it is possible that an event occurs in one reading but not in another one, depending on the choice for a certain hyperlink. Moreover, it can be uncertain whether both texts refer to the same situation. This is not only the case for events but for all of the elements in the fictional world. This structure of hypertext makes it hard to fix elements on certain places within the narrative. Thereby making temporal and causal relations, the most important principle of order in narratives in print, almost impossible.

Forster argues that "the king died and then the queen died" is only a story [...] because it adds causation. But the interesting thing is that our minds inveterately seek structure, and will provide it if necessary. (Chatman, 1978: 45)
Chatman's reply to Forster gives one possible answer to the complaint that hyperfiction cannot be a narrative because it lacks the amount of causal relations common to print. This would mean that the only structure in a hyperfiction can be found in the head of a reader, making hyperfiction a totally disorganised collection of texts. It is not. Therefore, I will try to find another answer. What if causal and temporal connections are not the only principles of organisation?

With hyperfiction, the text where the king dies and the one where the queen dies, are not linked at random but by a deliberately and carefully made hyperlink. A hyperlink has two components. The first component is the literal connection between the texts. If one would make a graphical representation of the texts and the links between them, it will become clear that most hyperfictions use a specific pattern. This pattern dictates the directions a reader can take from a certain point within the narrative. Depending on the structure, a reader can access every text on every point in the narrative or can only follow a carefully designed path. The chosen linking pattern therefore provides the most basic structure of hyperfiction.

The second component of a hyperlink is the content. This is used to provide information on the ground of the connection. If the hyperlink between the texts describing the deaths of the queen and king is named 'therefore' a causal connection is formed. Usually however the hyperlink will contain for example just the name of the king in the text describing the death of the queen and vice versa. Both deaths are thereby associated, but the exact connection must be interpreted by the reader. Those associations are not arbitrarily either, but may form a thematic structure. Both structures are closely related. A clear example of this can be found in the above-mentioned hyperfiction My body & A Wunderkammer. Thematically as well as structurally, this is a map of a body. The hyperlinks between the texts are placed within this framework, which creates the effect of associating all the textual information with this body.

Hyperfiction uses principles of association on a more profound level than is common with literature in print. To clarify this, I would like to use The Castle of Crossed Destinies by Italo Calvino as an example. In this work, tarot cards are used to tell different stories: each character arranges certain cards of the deck to tell his or her story, but at the same time every card has its own meaning. The cards are printed within the book. Still, these are only illustrations, making the associations between the stories and cards purely metaphoric. If Calvino would have turned to hyperfiction, he could have used the cards as hyperlinks to the stories. This would make the associations metaphorical as well as structural; the cards become the doorways to the stories.

I focused here on the structural site of the narrative in hyperfiction, because this seemed to me to be the most striking and problematic difference with literature in print. The structural challenge has influence on the content of the story too. Hyperfiction tends to have a strong theme, probably to strengthen the coherence of the story. An example of this is Michael Joyce's On the Birthday of a Stranger. In this hyperfiction all the different events can be attached to this birthday. Another way to achieve this effect is to focus on characters, like Craven's In the Changing Room. The Unknown (Gillespie a.o.) uses both, in combination with an almost non-existent linking pattern. The sturctural challenge becomes even greater when several independent stories are combined within one hyperfiction. Moulthtrop uses a very simple but effective means in his Hegeriascope, every story has its own background color.


Hyperfiction can use a linking pattern and organisation by association to form a structural framework, that can be viewed as a plot. Thereby hyperfiction qualifies as a narrative, if one accepts the above-mentioned definition of one. This acceptation comes with a price (or a merit, depending on your preferences); it radically changes the definitions of texts, narrative and reading. These definitions were already stretched by post-modern literature and post-structuralistic theory. However, both were based on the medium of print. Hypertext is a different medium with different features that influence the way a story is told and read. How far this influence reaches is up to the author and the technological possibilities at his or her disposal.

Hyperfiction is a relatively recent form of narrative and is still in its developing stage. The effort of writers to use the characteristics of the Internet to tell a story is, in my opinion, impressive. Within a relatively short period of time new devices have been developed for almost everything that makes up a story. With the burn rate on technology, this promises something for the development of hyperfiction.


Bolter, Jay David.
1991 Writing space: The Computer, Hypertext, and the History of Writing. Hillsdale: Erlbaum.

Calvino, Italo.
1997 Castle of Crossed Destinies. London: Vintage. [1969]

Chatman, Seymour.
1978 Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Couturier, Maurice.
1991 Textual Communication: A Print-Based Theory of the Novel. London: Routledge.

Doležel, Ludomír.
1998 Heterocosmica: Fiction and Possible Worlds. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press.

Landow, George P.
1992 Hypertext: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory & Technology. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Miller, D.A.
1981 Narrative and Its Discontents: Problems of Closure in the Traditional Novel. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Mul, Jos de.
1997 " De digitalisering van de cultuur." In: G. Extra (ed.). Lustrumbundel Faculteit der Letteren. Tilburg: KUB. pp. 26-49. http://www.eur.nl/fw/hyper/Artikelen/digitali.htm.

Prince, Gerald.
1981 Narratology: The Form and Functioning of Narrative. Berlin: Mouton Publishers.

Ryan, Marie-Laure.
1999 "The Text as World Versus the Text as Game: Possible Worlds Semantics and Postmodern Theory." In: Journal of Literary Semantics. 27 (1998). pp. 137-163.

Stanzel, F.K.
1983 A Theory of Narrative. Trans. C. Goedsche. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hyperfictions mentioned

Amerika, Mark.
1997 Grammatron. http://www.grammatron.com.

Atavar, Michael.
1997 ****. http://www.atavar.com/atavar/.

Benson, David (ed.).
No Dead Trees. http://www.nodeadtrees.com/NDT/novel_main.html.

Craven, Jackie.
1998 In the Changing Room. http://www.wordcircuits.com/gallery/changing/change.htm.

Fisher, Caitlin.
2001 These Waves of Girls http://www.yorku.ca/caitlin/waves

Gillespie, William (a.o.).
The Unknown. http://www.unknownhypertext.com.

Inglis, Gavin.
Same Day Test. http://www.tardis.ed.ac.uk/~krynoid/sdt/.

Jackson, Shelley.
1997 The Body & A Wunderkammer. http://www.altx.com/thebody/.

Joyce, Michael.
199? On the Birthday of the Stranger. http://www.evergreenreview.com/102/evexcite/joyce/nojoyce.html.

Moulthrop, Stuart.
1997 Hegirascope. http://raven.ubalt.edu/staff/moulthrop/hypertexts/HGS/Hegirascope.html.

Payne, K.M. en George Simmers.
199? A Maze of Mirrors. http://homepages.nildram.co.uk/~simmers/maze/index.htm.

Powazek, Derek M.
Fray http://www.fray.com

Pryll, Richard L. Jr.
1994 Lies. http://www.users.interport.net/~rick/lies/lies.html.

Ryman, Geoff.
253: Or Tube Theatre. http://www.ryman-novel.com.